The COVID-19 pandemic hit the NHL hard, with teams looking at an estimated loss of $1.31 million per home game. It’s no wonder the league is going full steam ahead with the 24-team play-in format to offset the losses and try to bring back a sense of normalcy. That being said, those financial losses will have a major impact on the Salary Cap moving forward. Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet reported that the cap will remain flat for the next two seasons and rise minimally in 2022-2023.
How does this benefit Montreal Canadiens’ general manager (GM), Marc Bergevin? A flat cap will hit hard the teams that are against the cap, as most if not all will have key players to re-sign or let go. This provides Bergevin with an opportunity to exploit his rivals and put his projected $18.3 million in cap space for 2020-21 to use in filling team needs.
Upcoming Free Agents
Over the next three seasons, the Canadiens have their work cut out for them to retain their core and key players. This offseason, Bergevin has two restricted free agents (RFA), Max Domi and Victor Mete, to re-sign, which shouldn’t be a problem.
The cap issues will begin next offseason as the expansion draft looms when Bergevin will need to find a way to retain several unrestricted free agents (UFA), including the top line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. On top of that, RFAs Arturri Lehkonen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling, and UFAs Jeff Petry and Joel Armia, will need new contracts. A flat cap for several seasons will directly impact the decisions made this offseason and will affect who can be retained the following season.
Montreal is not a top destination for UFAs for many reasons. (from ‘Cam Cole: NHL players prefer Anywhere But Canada,’ Vancouver Sun, 02/19/2015) The Habs need depth in scoring, a puck-moving defenseman for the top four on the left side, and a backup goaltender for Carey Price. Targeting teams that have a surplus of those players and who are too close to the cap to retain their stars is a safe move for Bergevin. It allows him to play with his cap space and deep prospect pool in trade scenarios to fill team needs.
Target – Shayne Gostisbehere
The Philadelphia Flyers defenceman has been linked to Montreal many times over the last year. He fills a key need as a puck-moving left-handed defender. He is also capable of quarterbacking the power play (PP), another deficiency in the Canadiens’ system.
The Flyers aren’t too tight against the cap, however, Gostisbehere has become an expensive third-pairing defenceman who has fallen down their depth chart due to some injury woes and their maturing youth into top-four defenders. Despite the laundry list of players Bergevin needs to retain, the Canadiens can easily fit the 27-year-old, Gostisbehere’s $4.5 million cap hit until 2022-2023. Due to his decline in usage, his value may be low enough to entice Bergevin to act. A package including a second-round pick – the Canadiens have three second-round picks in 2020 – and a mid-tier prospect nearing NHL readiness, such as a Lukas Vejdemo, may be enough to fill a long-standing need in Montreal.
Target – Vince Dunn
The defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues are at a crossroads in extending their championship window. They will be pressed against the cap with only approximately $2 million in space available next season and the need to retain team captain Alex Pietrangelo as well as left-handed defender Vince Dunn who is an RFA.
Bergevin can target Dunn in this scenario. I wrote in an earlier piece for The Hockey Writers that he could be an excellent target for an offer sheet and the same was recently noted by Arpon Basu at The Athletic:
Rutherford addressed the possibility of a Dunn offer sheet in a mailbag last month, and honestly, the Blues would be in a very difficult position to match it if it were rich enough. Under the current compensation thresholds, the Canadiens could sign Dunn for $4.2 million a year and would only need to give up a second-round pick. There is no way the Blues are ready to pay Dunn that much since he is not even arbitration-eligible yet, but if the Canadiens consider him to be a player worth that money, that’s a risk that might be worth taking,(Ask Arpon: The draft lottery dominates this month’s edition of the mailbag’ Arpon Basu – The Athletic – 02/07/2020).
However, given the low success rate of offer sheets, a trade may be the better solution. Dunn provided the Blues with a third-pairing defenceman on a Cup-winning squad. He also quarterbacked the top PP unit. He’s had defensive issues at five-on-five (5v5) that he will need to improve upon, however, his strengths and weaknesses would pair very well with a veteran like Shea Weber.
Dunn will want a pay raise, as Basu stated above, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to earn about $4.5 million per season, an amount the Canadiens can afford. To make a trade possible for a quality young player, Bergevin would need to use his cap space. He could ask for goaltender Jake Allen as well, which would pull one season at $4.35 million off the Blues’ books and make it possible for them to retain Pietrangelo. It would also provide the Habs with a defenceman who pairs well with Weber and a backup for Price.
Despite the added cap hit coming to Montreal, the cost in trade assets will not be low. For the Canadiens to get two young players with experience who fill organizational needs, they will still need to supply the Blues – who want to remain a contender for a few more seasons – with a return that allows them to fill bottom pairing and backup roles cheaply.
The Habs could start with Mete, he would be an obvious piece to replace Dunn’s style on the third-pairing, and Charlie Lindgren could be a serviceable backup. As Dunn is a highly regarded young defender, the Canadiens may need to add a second round pick, perhaps as much as a late first round pick.
Target – Mikhail Sergachev
The Canadiens’ division rivals, Tampa Bay Lightning, have only $5 million in cap space available and will need to sign or trade for five defencemen and three forwards to fill their roster for next season. This could be Bergevin’s “vulture” moment where he can swoop in and pick a player using his cap space as a weapon.
The obvious target would be defenceman and former Canadiens draft pick, Mikhail Sergachev. While his impact on the PP is only marginally better than Dunn’s, his play at 5v5 and his overall potential is what Bergevin would be paying for. Sergachev could command a bridge deal worth $7 million per season. He would fit one of the Habs’ organizational needs perfectly at the ceiling of what they can afford.
There’s no guarantee that extending an offer sheet to Sergachev would even be entertained. It would need to be high enough to dissuade Lightning GM Julien BriseBois to allow a divisional rival to take his second-pairing defender away. As above, a trade scenario would be the likelier to work.
Bergevin would need to provide the Lightning with a high-end prospect, and perhaps he could convince them to take Ryan Poehling instead of Cole Caufield. Tampa might also want the Canadiens’ first or a few second-round picks in this year’s draft.
Brisebois will also be looking to fill out his roster and may be interested in Jeff Petry if the Canadiens retain 50% of his salary. Essentially, if Bergevin wants to repatriate the prospect he moved out for Jonathan Drouin, it will be a difficult deal to complete as the Lightning will not want to help a rival, or care about helping Bergevin rehabilitate his public image with his detractors in reversing that deal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created chaos in the hockey world and has made a direct and significant impact on the salary cap for the next few years. Bergevin has the tools and the cap space to take the next step towards becoming a playoff team, possibly even a contender. But he has to tread carefully if he wants to retain his current core group as well. The next few months will be an exciting time for Canadiens fans, especially if Bergevin is prepared to make bold moves.